PROVIDENCE — It seems fair for Father Robert Hayman to describe the most recent edition of his “Catholicism in Rhode Island” book series as offering readers a “panoramic” history of our diocese from 1921 to 1948. Indeed, for any history to truly be considered Catholic, it must also be panoramic — able to evaluate the wide diversity of cultural, ethnic and historical perspectives that are incorporated within our universal Church.
In addition to chronicling the major events within the diocese during the period, Father Hayman also includes a comprehensive community history for every parish and ethnic population within the state during that era.
Though admittedly ill-suited to casual reading, the 600-page volume is exhaustive in its research: Father Hayman presents readers with a carefully curated documentary history of three momentous decades in Rhode Island’s religious history.
The official diocesan perspective for each event forms the backbone of the text, with Father Hayman drawing largely upon the archives of Rhode Island Catholic’s venerable predecessor, The Providence Visitor [which has a legendary publication history of its own, according to Father Hayman, including a period in the 1930s in which it was widely considered “the best Catholic paper in the country”]. In addition to this, however, Father Hayman also combed through the thousands of documents preserved on aging microfilm in the special collections of university and public libraries throughout the state.
Local newspapers in languages like Italian and French, together with the records of various parishes throughout the state, tell the story of various communities and ethnic enclaves within the Diocese of Providence.
“There was an explosion of ethnic parishes during that period due to immigration,” Father Harman explains. “The Italians, the Portuguese, the French-Canadians – throughout the 1920s and 30s, these new Catholic populations began to integrate into the culture of our diocese.”
This integration was not always without conflict. Much of Father Hayman’s book is spent exploring the tension between La Sentinelle, a French newspaper based in Woonsocket in the 1920s, and Bishop Wiliam A. Hickey. Although the “Sentinelle Affair” was the most prominent example of ethnic tension within the diocese during that era, Catholicism in Rhode Island also tells of challenges experienced by other groups arriving in Rhode Island, such as the impact which Mussolini’s climb to power and America’s entry into WWII had upon Italians living in the diocese.
“With so many cultures and languages, I’d say what’s really allowed our diocese to maintain its unity is our shared love for Jesus Christ,” Father Hayman says.
“During this period in particular, I’ve always been impressed how every community to settle in the diocese — from the Irish to the Polish to the Quebecois — displayed a faith which really manifested in generosity. So many parishes throughout our diocese were built by the hard work and financial support of these groups, so it’s a major part of our story.”
Father Hayman’s own story [or the story of his research, at any rate] begins in the 1980s, shortly after he received his Ph.D. from Providence College.
“It was an extremely busy period for me — I went from being a student to teaching for Western Civ [referring to PC’s well-known Development of Western Civilization undergraduate program], and it was around then that I first started my research into diocesan history,” says Father Hayman, a senior priest who also serves as the archivist for the Diocese of Providence.
The first volume to emerge from Father Hayman’s research concentrated on a period stretching from 1780-1886, more or less stretching from the first arrival of Catholics in Rhode Island and ending with the foundation of the Diocese of Providence — which, at the time of its creation, included what is now the Diocese of Fall River.
“That was the reason we had to title the series ‘Catholicism in Rhode Island and the Diocese of Providence,’” Father Hayman explains.
“When the Diocese was first founded, it included more than just Rhode Island, so those Massachusetts communities had to be included as well if the history was going to be complete.”
Father Hayman’s second book focused on the early decades of diocesan history (1886-1921). The present text (1921-1948) is the third volume in the series — and is to be joined by a fourth volume much sooner than you might expect.
“This was originally supposed to be twice as long, but it was going to be too large for publication costs to be practical, so I had to split some material off into a fourth volume,” Father Hayman says.
That book, which is centered on the episcopacy of Bishop Russell McVinney (1948-1971) will be released soon.
In the meantime, anyone wishing to obtain a copy of Father Hayman’s latest volume of “Catholicism in Rhode Island” may order one at www.stillwaterbooks.com.